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Gotham Gazette

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Proposed Arts Budget, A Destabilizing Deja Vu Dance

City Hall counts on the cultural sector to attract tourists, provide arts education, stabilize neighborhoods, and to make New York City an attractive place for creative people who work in industries as diverse as fashion and Web design. Mayors are often the first to trumpet the cultural attractions as one of the unique attributes of the city.

It would be great to say the opposite is true as well –- that cultural organizations count on City Hall as a reliable partner in its funding process. Unfortunately, yet again, that is not the case. Instead we are being treated to a destabilizing, deja vu dance.

The Bloomberg administration is once again proposing a decrease in funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs next year -– a reduction of more than $37 million from the current year, to $102.2 million, according to the Independent Budget Office. This represents the largest proposed cut in two decades.

This latest budget leaves the members of the Cultural Institutions Group or CIGs (the 34 cultural groups in city owned buildings) with cash subsidies roughly equivalent to 1989. The remaining arts groups are getting funding slightly above 1987 levels.

One of the mysteries of this administration is the steady decline in cultural affairs budgets proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In his first budget, he recommended $110.4 million. Some in the cultural sector have interpreted this downward pattern to mean that Mayor Bloomberg is not convinced that public dollars should be used to fund cultural programming.

Capital funding plans show a slightly different pattern, but are heavily influenced by both Borough President and City Council commitments and by projects that are often not completed within a single budget year. Actual spending from the city funds in 2004 was $98.5 million. That increased to $140 million in 2005, and is projected at $130.5 million for the forthcoming budget. Future projections decrease this funding, however, to only $10 million by 2010.

More telling than future projections in this instance is the reality that in 2002, city funds for capital expenditures for cultural affairs was the far higher $208 million.

Experienced budget watchers tell the cultural groups that these administration proposals mean little, since the City Council has almost always restored the cuts. Unfortunately, that “almost always” is not grounds for fiscal planning by cultural groups, and in fact, restoration to the non-Cultural Institution Groups has not always taken place. This pattern of proposed decreases, followed by budget negotiations that restore some or all of the cuts, destabilizes the cultural sector more than any other activity under the control of elected officials.

A loss of funding due to a sudden economic blow, such as September 11, is also destabilizing, but a deliberate continued pattern of proposing cuts only to agree to last-minute restorations as the fiscal year ends is an entirely different matter. It is clear that cultural funding is simply a pawn in the ritual budget dance of Mayor versus City Council.

It is for that reason that so many in the cultural field are angry, not only at the current mayorÂąs treatment of cultural funding, but at both his predecessors. The rhetoric about the value of the arts to the city is not matched by the budget reality.

Under the Bloomberg administration, this destabilizing impact has been carried even further, however, by a re-definition of what budget watchers refer to as baseline funding. Simply put, baseline is the amount of money an organization had before the Mayor, Borough President, or City Council added any special one-time initiatives.

The Bloomberg administration now characterizes all funding added to its proposed budget as one-time initiatives, and has defined baseline as whatever it proposes regardless of prior commitments. In the past, if baseline was cut in a mayoral budget, the restoration of those funds was treated as ongoing, not one-time funding. For example, an organization that was baselined at $7500 when Mayor Bloomberg took office was first reduced to just over $6000, then increased slightly, then decreased again slightly, and is now looking at an another decrease. Any money the council puts in the budget for that organization is entirely a one year effort. The notion of a restoration process is essentially gone.

For the majority of cultural groups in the city, this budget dance has produced a steady decrease in funding over several years. For the 34 members of the Cultural Institutions Group, the unique partnership they felt they had with the city is deeply eroded as their funding levels become increasingly erratic.

The question is why if the cultural sector is so valuable, this budget dance goes on? Budget deficits are not the reason; the Bloomberg administration is projecting a very large surplus this year. The only logical conclusion is that cultural activity really does not matter all that much to mayors, regardless of the speeches, which leaves the City Council increasingly taking on the mantle of leadership in cultural funding.

Related Article

Independent Budget Office Review Of The 2007 Preliminary Budget For The Department of Cultural Affairs Norma Munn is chair of the New York City Arts Coalition

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